Our collections of digital data are growing ever larger these days, thanks mostly to digital media. Ironically, storage capacities are dropping at the same time—at least on the trendiest of new PCs. A new netbook probably has a much smaller hard disk than a full-featured notebook. At the opposite end of the price-performance spectrum, high-end portable PCs are using fast, quiet, energy-efficient solid-state drives; to keep costs competitive, these drives are typically much smaller than conventional hard drives used in similarly configured notebooks. If you’re trying to squeeze an extra year of service out of a three-year-old notebook, you’ve probably already noticed that the hard drive that once seemed so capacious now feels downright puny. Disk space also gets dear if you’re dual-booting or using desktop virtualization to support multiple OS instances.
So how do you resolve the inevitable conflict between too much data and not enough drive? Start by figuring out how much storage space you really need, then put together a strategy (including hardware upgrades, if necessary) to make everything fit.
What’s on your hard drive?
Before you can even begin to think of tossing bits and bytes overboard, you have to take at least a rough inventory of the data you’re currently dealing with. How much disk space are you using, including hidden files? Which files are essential, and which are expendable? Here are the broad categories to look at:
Operating system and support files
If you’re using Windows 7, you might be surprised to find that a clean install takes less space than you would have guessed, and certainly less than an equivalent installation of Windows Vista. The exact disk footprint depends on the system configuration (memory and free disk space in particular) as it existed when you initially installed Windows. Your best reference point is a clean, fully updated installation of Windows, with no added programs or user data. Here, for example, is how much space Windows 7 Ultimate used in a 37GB Boot Camp partition on a Mac with 2GB of RAM:
Windows puts roughly 7.7GB of files in the Windows folder and its many subfolders. It also creates a hibernation file equal in size to the amount of RAM on the system. The total, in this case, is approximately 10.2 GB. That’s not bad, actually, but it can be cut down significantly with a couple small tweaks, as I explain later.
Temp files and backups
Windows programs (including Internet Explorer) create temporary files for all sorts of reasons. The system also creates a variety of backup files, some of which you might not be aware of. The biggest user of disk space is your old copy of Windows, which sticks around in a folder called Windows.old if you do a custom installation instead of an upgrade. System Restore points also use up more space than you think. Windows includes a Disk Cleanup utility that lets you free up disk space by eliminating these files.
On new PCs, OEMs inevitably preinstall trial editions of software that you’ll never use. If your system came with a security suite or a trial edition of Microsoft Office or Works that you don’t need, use the Uninstall or change a program option in Control Panel to get rid of it.
Hidden data files
Many programs store configuration data in the hidden ProgramData folder. In addition, some programs store your user data files in the hidden AppData folder within your personal profile. Microsoft Outlook and Windows Live Mail both use the latter location to store e-mail messages, which can use a surprising amount of space if you don’t manage them properly.
It’s easy to chew up a lot of space with an MP3 collection or an iTunes library. Digital photos take up a lot of room too, especially if you shoot in RAW format. And movies? Three or four ripped DVDs can use up 10% or more of a netbook drive. Do you really need 20 GB of music files, or can you get just as much enjoyment out of a more discerning selection that uses a fraction of the disk space?
Other user data
Individual Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and PDF files might be small, but collectively they can add up to many gigabytes. Separating old projects from those you’re currently working on can help you decide whether it makes sense to reclaim disk space by moving older files to an offsite archive.
Smart Storage Strategies
After you’ve taken an inventory, calculate how much disk space you need. In my experience, performance can suffer dramatically if you don’t leave enough free disk space for the disk controller to work with. As a broad guideline, I like to leave at least one-third of the disk free (and never less than 25%).
I don’t recommend running Windows 7 if you have a system volume less than 20GB in size. It’s technically possible, but you have to be so aggressive about managing disk space that it becomes a source of unnecessary stress. For a Windows 7 PC that’s used mostly for web browsing and cloud-based e-mail and applications, you can get by with a partition that is 30 GB or more in size.
After you’ve made your initial calculations, try a mix of the following strategies:
Use the Disk Cleanup utility
This built-in Windows tool lets you empty the Recycle Bin, clear out temp files, and get rid of other junk you don’t need. To open Disk Cleanup, right-click the C: drive icon, choose Properties, and click the Disk Cleanup button on the General tab. Click the Clean up system files option to restart the utility as an administrator; this is the approved way to safely erase the Windows.old folder and remove all but the most recent System Restore checkpoint.
Throw hardware at the problem.
This is the easiest and best solution to most storage shortages, if your budget and your hardware will cooperate. On most notebooks and desktop PCs you can replace the main hard drive fairly easily, using a system image or a drive-cloning utility to transfer the contents of your old hard drive to the new one. In most cases, it’s a cheap and easy upgrade. You can get a performance bonus, too, if the new drive is also faster and has a larger onboard cache than the old one. If you need to carry more working files than your notebook’s hard drive will hold and replacement isn’t an option, pick up a portable USB drive and keep it in your traveling bag.
Be aggressive with managing user data.
If you use a standalone e-mail client, prune old messages and those with large attachments so your local message store stays at a reasonable size. Check your default libraries regularly to make sure they’re not using more disk space than you expect.
Use the cloud.
If you can easily separate your essential working files from those you occasionally need access to, consider online storage spaces. To archive old files, use cloud-based storage like Microsoft’s free Windows Live Skydrive (25GB) or Office Live (5 GB). Commercial services typically offer free basic accounts with tiered pricing for storage beyond a gigabyte or two; try Box.net (1GB free), or SugarSync (2GB free). Use the Lala.com service (now owned by Apple) to upload copies of digital music files from your local music collection to a server where you can stream them to your browser on demand. Put your digital photos on Flickr or in Picasa Web Albums.
Add supplemental storage.
Does your PC have a slot for a Secure Digital or Compact Flash card? These storage devices are typically slower than a hard drive, but they’re an ideal place to keep a subset of your main music library or digital picture collection without filling your main hard drive. USB flash keys are fine for desktop PCs but less convenient for notebooks, where they typically have to be removed before you store or transport your PC.
Cut down hibernation and paging files.
If you’re desperate for a few extra gigabytes of space, these two system files are worth looking at. By default, the hibernation file is equal in size to the amount of RAM you have installed. You can disable hibernation and remove this file completely (a strategy I don’t recommend) or cut the size of the file by as much as half.
For either tweak, open an elevated Command Prompt window and use the appropriate command:
powercfg –h offto disable hibernation completely
powercfg –h –size 50to shrink the hidden Hiberfil.sys to half its size (from 2GB to 1GB on a system with 2GB of RAM)
You can also cut the size of the page file; I don’t recommend eliminating it completely, nor do I advise making it less than equal to the amount of physical RAM. Open the Computer window, click System Properties on the toolbar, and click Advanced System Settings in the tasks pane. In the System Properties dialog box, under the Performance heading, click the Settings button to open the Performance Options dialog box, and then click the Advanced tab. Under the Virtual memory heading, click Change. Finally, in the Virtual Memory dialog box, select the hard disk where the paging file is located (typically C:), click the Custom size option, and enter the initial and maximum sizes for the paging file.
Be sure to click Set after making your changes; if you skip this step, your old settings remain in place. On my test system, Windows had initially created a fixed paging file, roughly 2GB in size. Using the settings shown here allows the paging file to grow back to that size if necessary. But for now, at least, I can get by with a paging file that is one-tenth the size of the original setting and monitor its growth over time to see how much space I really need.